The New York Times recently recycled an article (“Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious“) that it had published years ago on the relationship between anxiety and exercise – specifically aerobic and endurance exercises. The bottom line: by exercising regularly over time (at least six weeks might be the minimum), your mind will develop healthy new neurons that may lessen your feelings of anxiety.
Of course, I’m writing about this now because anxiety concerns me as a Parkie. As other people and I have noted elsewhere (click! click! click!), people with Parkinson’s disease are prone to major anxiety, NOT because it’s just a normal reaction to learning you have the disease, but because Parkinson’s changes the brain’s chemistry, resulting in anxiety and depression.
All the research that the article reviews was done with rats. (Rats?! Hey, I would have volunteered!) In multiple experiments, rats were divided into groups. One group exercised aerobically for many weeks, the other group didn’t. When put in stressful situations, the physically fit rats were not as anxious as the couch potato rats, as shown by their behavior and by subsequent examinations of their brains.
Key quote at the top of the article:
“Scientists have known for some time that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells (neurons) but not how, precisely, these neurons might be functionally different from other brain cells.”
Key quote a little farther down:
“The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.”
Some proof-in-the-pudding from one experiment:
“[R]ats that had exercised … were relatively nonchalant under stress. When placed in [an] unfamiliar space, they didn’t run for dark corners and hide, like the unexercised rats. They insouciantly explored.”
Insouciant? Hey, that’s right up my alley! Wiktionary defines “insouciant” as “carefree, nonchalant, indifferent; casually unconcerned.” Then it provides this great example written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1903: “It was there that on Sunday I had seen the populace disport itself, and it was full of life then, gay and insouciant.” [Bolding partially mine.]
Here’s the entire final paragraph from the Times’ article, bolding mine:
The stress-reducing changes wrought by exercise on the brain don’t happen overnight, however, as virtually every researcher agrees. In the University of Colorado experiments, for instance, rats that ran for only three weeks did not show much reduction in stress-induced anxiety, but those that ran for at least six weeks did. “Something happened between three and six weeks,” says Benjamin Greenwood, a research associate in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, who helped conduct the experiments. Dr. Greenwood added that it was “not clear how that translates” into an exercise prescription for humans. We may require more weeks of working out, or maybe less. And no one has yet studied how intense the exercise needs to be. But the lesson, Dr. Greenwood says, is “don’t quit.” Keep running or cycling or swimming. (Animal experiments have focused exclusively on aerobic, endurance-type activities.) You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first jog, if you haven’t been exercising. But the molecular biochemical changes will begin, Dr. Greenwood says. And eventually, he says, they become “profound.”
I’d now like to add my before-and-after feelings about anxiety and exercise via an anecdote. This past Wednesday I came home from work feeling stressed out, anxious, and exhausted. On Wednesday nights I usually go to the Westchester Table Tennis Center to learn how to play ping-pong alongside a handful of other Parkies. A team of friendly ping-pong experts works with us one-on-one, and I am slowly, no – not slowly – quickly becoming entranced with learning more and more about this great sport.
The demigods and -goddesses who descend from the firmament every Wednesday night to teach people with Parkinson’s how to play ping-pong.
I considered not going this Wednesday because I was a mental and emotional wreck – stressed out from work and mired in my general state of Parkinsonian anxiety. “Just stay home and relax,” I told myself. “Tomorrow is another day.”
But I suppressed my dominant (domineering?) feelings, forced myself into the car, and drove to the ping-pong session. I had a great time and left an hour later, feeling fantastic and eager for the next day at work. Feeling upbeat and immortal.
Ping-pong is a remarkable sport for Parkies because it works on so much: You have to be physically coordinated; make split-second decisions; hone your hand-eye coordination; chase after balls (as a beginner, I have to chase a lot of them and bend over to pick them up – this makes the sport aerobic for me, and I sweat a lot); learn new techniques for standing and twisting your body; concentrate; and practice, practice, practice.
These ping-pong lessons make me feel elated, and they’re opening up for me an exciting new future that I never would have envisioned before. It’s great that at the age of 64 I’m embarking on a tantalizing, new adventure.
And that’s NOT how I felt on Wednesday afternoon when I left work.